Fly Until You Die by Chia Youyee Vang

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History professor and author Chia Youyee Vang has written another chapter about the United States Secret War in Laos with Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in the Vietnam War (Oxford University Press, 218 pp. $74, hardcover; $74, Kindle).

Professor Vang, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, takes a highly emotional look at why and how the United States trained Hmong soldiers to fly close air support in reconfigured T-28s commanded by Gen. Vang Pao in Military Region 2 of Laos. Code-named “Water Pump,” the program lasted from 1964-75 and trained thirty-eight men, some of whom flew thousands of combat missions. Eighteen were killed in action. The book accounts for all of them.

Born in Laos, Vang left the country at the age of eight in 1979. Her family eventually settled in the Minnesota as political refugees. In 2013-14, she conducted face-to-face interviews with former Hmong pilots, relatives of those killed in action or deceased, and a few American military personnel who worked with the Hmong during the Vietnam War. Forty-three people contributed reminiscences to her book.

Professor Vang excels at story telling by incorporating interviews verbatim into her narrative of the time. Her technique amplifies the emotional impact of the speakers. She recognizes failures as well as successes of the Hmong pilots.

She explains how Gen. Vang Pao and American instructors selected and qualified Hmong as pilots from a group of people who lacked formal education and had no tech skills. A few of the men had never driven an automobile, Vang says. Worst of all, their T-28s had been rejected by the Vietnamese and, due to modifications, no two airplanes were alike. Sometimes bombs failed to release and rockets did not fire.

What’s more, the primary runway at Long Tieng (Long Chieng) was too short and one end was blocked by towers, which eliminated any margin for flying errors. Accidents happened frequently. Nevertheless, the performance of the Hmong in combat was selfless. No limit existed for how many missions they flew or the number of risks they took. An American interviewee claimed that one pilot flew more than 4,000 missions.

Vang Pao paid Hmong pilots salaries (plus frequent bonuses) far higher than those that went to his regular soldiers. When a pilot was killed, however, the General usually ignored the needs of the man’s families, causing them extreme economic hardships. Similarly, at the end of the war, Vang Pao provided little, if any, assistance to the Hmong. As a result, Professor Vang writes that Hmong who once flew for and admired the General lost all respect for him.

The book follows the Hmong who left Laos after the United States departed Vietnam in 1975 and the subsequent communist takeover of both nations. Most fled to Thailand and enjoyed “a brief moment of relief” as people transitioning from fear for their lives to “the harshness of displacement,” she says. She portrays Thai refugee camps as worlds of utter abandonment; for the Hmong, life as they knew it appeared lost forever.

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Chia Youyee Vang

Eventually, the United States government gave 140,000 Hmong a second life by bringing them here. Based on their own testimony, those who moved to the U.S. have found happiness.

Professor Vang closes Fly Until You Die by reassessing the war and its legacy. She has previously examined the Hmong diaspora in Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (2010); Hmong in Minnesota (2008); and Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women (2016).

Her excellent appendices, notes, and bibliography, as well as ten pages of photographs, significantly strengthen the research. Above all, the revelations of the people she interviewed make this book a valuable history lesson about the intricacies of the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

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CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans by Bill Collier

 

In 2015, Bill Collier wrote a memoir, The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps. Earlier year he published CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans: Flying Helicopters in Laos for Air America (Wandering Star, 349 pp. $20, paper; $4.99, Kindle).

In reviewing his earlier book, I said, “Apparently written mainly from memory, the book is jumpy at times, skipping from topic to topic like conversation in a bar. Nevertheless, its many stories are highly readable.” Collier’s new book has similar qualities: It kept me continuously entertained. Just about anywhere readers open the book, they will find an outrageous story filled with chills and thrills, laughs, or romance.

CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans has two main stories lines.

The first deals with Air America and, of course, the “secret” war in Laos. Collier flew there from mid-1970 to the end of 1972. Chapters such as “Sleeping in the Cockpit While Flying” left me nodding and smiling. Despite the book’s title, Collier tells interesting stories without giving away secrets about war-time air operations.

His flying stories do not reach the emotional intensity of his experiences as a rookie Marine pilot. Back then, when he proudly attained aircraft commander status, he wrote timeless lines such as, “I could now live or die by my own bad decisions.”

The second story line deals with the playboy activities of the well-paid Air America pilots. The men enjoyed long annual leaves and traveled internationally: Athens, Madrid, Lisbon, London, Miami, San Francisco, and San Diego once were stops on the same vacation. For shorter leaves, Collier and the other pilots stayed closer to home at Udorn, Thailand, as well  Bangkok, Hong Kong, India (visiting the Taj Mahal), Katmandu, and Sydney.

They did well with many of the women they encountered. Collier is man enough, though, to confess to times when he struck out. Primarily, the pilots shared mutual admiration, understanding, and satisfaction of physical needs with airline stewardesses.

Collier summarizes one vacation by quoting W.C. Fields. To wit: “I spent my money on whiskey and women. The rest of it I wasted.”

He validates his memory with three lengthy appendices: “The History of Air America: CIA Air Operations in Laos 1955-1974” by William M. Leary; Anne Darling’s “CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans” from the 1972 premier issue of Oui magazine; and “Life and Death among the Hill Tribes” by Peter Aiken from a 1972 Lookeast magazine.

To wrap, Collier cites Anne Darling on the security of the Air America/CIA programs. She quotes a pilot who said, “The North Vietnamese know everything we’re doing. They’re not the problem. The security Air America is concerned about is being secure from the scrutiny of the American people.”

Even today, Bill Collier pretty much treats security in the same manner. Yet he still tells great stories about a war that never was.

—Henry Zeybel